Sometimes when Kentucky coach John Calipari speaks, no one is really listening to what he’s saying.
It happened again after the Wildcats’ 90-84 loss at Kansas on Saturday. While many were ready to say Kentucky had turned a corner even in defeat, Calipari gave a warning after that game that his team was still making the same mistakes.
“They do not know how to win a game,” he said.
“When the game is in the guts of the game, we are just learning now what it means to play,” he said.
“It’s losing basketball,” he added.
Maybe now we should listen. There is no turning the corner. There is only a team that, like many others this season, can’t consistently perform outside of its home confines.
There’s good reason why no one wanted to hear Calipari. He had similar evaluations of the Cats during the 2013-14 season.
That’s when future NBA first-rounders Julius Randle and James Young headlined Kentucky’s No. 1 recruiting class that was also perched atop the preseason polls at No. 1.
The coronation didn’t last too long, as the Wildcats underachieved to the point of backsliding out of the polls by the end of the regular season and earned a lowly 8-seed in the NCAA tournament.
Back then, Kentucky had enough talent for a light-switch moment. The magic started in the tournament when the Wildcats fulfilled their potential by running through undefeated Wichita State and defending champion Louisville en route to reaching the national championship game.
Unless something drastically changes, it’s not gonna happen this year.
Not after watching Kentucky squander a 21-point lead to a Tennessee squad that’s flailing just to float around a .500 record. The Wildcats’ 84-77 loss Tuesday marked the second time they’ve let a double-digit lead fizzle in a road loss. Their 12-point lead at Auburn evaporated, too, in an 80-75 defeat.
Kentucky totaled five road losses two seasons ago. With road games remaining at South Carolina, Texas A&M, Vanderbilt and Florida , the Cats have already matched that number this season and four of those losses were to unranked teams.
Many factors have landed Kentucky in this position, but the biggest is the class of 2015 as a whole has not been as good as projected. Only Jamal Murray has been as good as advertised.
Isaiah Briscoe isn’t the shooting guard many thought he’d be and center Skal Labissiere hasn't plugged in as a dominating presence on the post like Karl-Anthony Towns and others before him. That’s OK, considering they’re just freshmen. But at Kentucky, they can’t afford to be average freshmen and still expect the Wildcats to be among the elite.
Especially when the upperclassmen haven’t developed into special talents.
Senior forward Alex Poythress has played with the same up-and-down consistency that makes spectators marvel when he comes to play or wonder what happened when he’s not focused.
In many ways, Poythress is the barometer of the team. Each of the four times he’s fouled out of a game, Kentucky has lost. In four of their six losses, he’s been held to single-digit scoring: six points against both Auburn and Ohio State, and four points against both UCLA and LSU.
Sophomore guard Tyler Ulis arguably has been the most consistent player for Kentucky, but he is having to play too many minutes and carry too much of the load. After he played all 45 minutes of the Kansas game, which marked the fifth time he played every minute of a game this season, Calipari said he’d like to reduce those minutes down to about 34.
But how can he afford to take Ulis out of the game? He can’t really.
The Cats don’t have the kind of depth that can lend to many options.
And that applies to more than just Ulis, who played 38 minutes against the Vols. About midway through the second half against Tennessee, reserve guard Dominique Hawkins committed a reaching foul. Calipari, not one to tolerate that kind of thing, looked to Briscoe and waved him to go check back in -- until the assistant coaches stopped him.
Briscoe had four fouls.
That defines what Kentucky is this season. The Wildcats don’t have a platoon of reinforcements coming to save the day.